By Douglas Scott
The National Wildlife Refuge System is 112 years old, with protected lands stretching from shore to shore of the country. For those of us in Thurston County, we are lucky enough to have one of the more scenic refuges right in our backyard. Located along the Nisqually River delta between the stunning peak of Mount Rainier and the majestic Olympic Mountains, Nisqually Wildlife Refuge gives those living in the South Puget Sound region a fantastic wildlife opportunity.
At over seven square miles in size, Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is a fantastic example of estuary habitat for migratory birds.
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, approximately 85% of estuarine habitat around the Puget Sound has been destroyed by human encroachment and development. Because Nisqually plays such a key role in migratory birds, the Refuge was created in 1974, and has grown in size and popularity since. Today, the refuge sees bus loads of school children, car loads of birding experts and hundreds of weekly visits from locals looking for a hike with sightings of eagles, geese, hawks, ducks and more.
One such visitor is Leslie Wolff, a self-identified owl enthusiast who is frequently at Nisqually. On many mornings, she can be found wandering the trails, watching Peregrine Falcons, eagles and searching for the owls.
“Getting here early is great,” Leslie responds when asked her favorite time to see the refuge. “You beat the crowds, and on misty mornings the place is even more gorgeous.”
Leslie isn’t alone in her love of Nisqually in the mornings. Each Wednesday at 8:00 a.m., anyone interested in attending a hike with birding experts and wildlife officials can meet at the visitor center of our local refuge. Packing cameras, binoculars, spotting scopes, pens and paper, those in attendance are hoping to get a glimpse of something new, as well as see their old favorites.
Known as the Wednesday Morning Bird Walks, the adventures around Nisqually are something that the refuge does 52 weeks a year, rain, shine, and snow.
The Wednesday Morning Bird Walks aren’t just for fun. Used as a weekly survey, this is the way the refuge monitors what birds are in the region, giving those tagging along a chance to see nearly every bird in the refuge. The Wednesday Morning Walk can be a long, but exciting day during peak migration periods, with some walks lasting well into the afternoon. These walks are the ideal way to see the park with experts of the region, allowing you to learn everything about each bird you see. Costing nothing except the general entry fee of $3 for four adults, the walks should be attended by everyone who can, and are worth taking sick day during the heavy migration days.
Over 200 species of birds visit or reside in Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, letting those who attend the Wednesday Morning Walks replay their own local version of the Steve Martin movie The Big Year. However, for those wanting to only walk the refuge when their favorite birds are in the region, the migratory patterns of the birds is known.
The spring months at Nisqually see the start of life for many of the more iconic birds of the region. In March, Bald Eagles start nesting, with their eggs hatching around late April. During April and May, Nisqually also sees an influx of over 5,000 western sandpipers. As summer nears, chinook salmon return to the Puget Sound, chased upriver by seals as song birds sing, and immature eagles fly above. The end of summer sees a transformation for the refuge, with the early returning waterfowl as well as the majestic peregrine falcons, merlins and kestrels.
For those who enjoy eagles, the end of fall and the winter months see the return of chum salmon, which makes for amazing viewing. During this time, thousands of geese winter in the wetlands of Nisqually, before leaving as spring rolls around one again.
During the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge’s Wednesday Morning Walks, all of the birds listed above and more can be seen with the help of experts, free of charge. While 8:00 a.m. might not always be convenient, attending once is sure to get you hooked on birding. Even if there are few birds on the day you attend, you will gain a wealth of information about our region, as well as taking in the beauty of the Olympic Mountains, Mount Rainier and the Puget Sound. Give it a chance and rediscover this hidden gem.
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